Lipinski, on the other hand, was blooming like a flower. The youngest athlete in the village, she easily made friends. Her roommate was another 15-year-old, ice dancer Jessica Joseph. She also spent time with Julia Lautowa, 16, a singles skater from Austria, who'd stayed with the Lipinskis during Skate America last October. The food was good, the rooms were comfortable and quiet. She had no idea what floor the U.S. hockey players were on.
Relaxed and cheerful, Lipinski was practicing beautifully, regularly landing her jumps. Afterward she'd go into the CBS production trailer to study the tape of her skating. In 1994 Oksana Baiul had been injured in a collision during an Olympic practice, and as a precaution against missing a similar mishap, CBS was videotaping the practices of the top women every day. Lipinski was the only one who asked to watch the tapes. The postproduction director even taught her how to use the videotape machine. "I was looking at my presentation," Lipinski says, "and seeing myself on tape gave me confidence. Sometimes you think it's worse than it actually is."
All season Lipinski's main focus has been on improving her artistry. In Detroit, where she trains, she takes daily instruction from Russian ballet teacher Marina Sheffer, then practices positions for hours in front of a mirror. While studying the tapes, she was looking for little things on which to improve. Both Lipinski's programs were choreographed by Sandra Bezic, who hadn't seen her skate them in person since last August, and Bezic was in Nagano doing commentary for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. After sitting through a couple of practices, she began E-mailing Lipinski with small suggestions. Bezic thought she might speed up her circular footwork near the conclusion of her short program, that she should spread her arms at the start of her spiral sequence. She suggested Lipinski alter the final position of her arms in the long program, so that one was upraised instead of lying folded across her chest.
Lipinski tried the ideas in practice, then studied how they looked on tape. Cumulatively, they made a difference. Imperceptibly, the artistic gap between her and Kwan was narrowing. During Wednesday's short program, skating to a song from the movie Anastasia, Lipinski was luminous—fast and light and joyful. "It didn't seem like me," she said after viewing the tape. "I could actually see myself as Anastasia. Emotionally, it was my best program ever."
Kwan, though, won the day easily, eight judges to one—Lipinski was second—but Kwan's coach, Frank Carroll, still looking for his first gold medalist of his long, distinguished career, admitted it was not her best performance. "She was a little conservative," he said. "At nationals, she had more energy, more strength, more freedom."
She also had a more difficult technical program. Carroll and Kwan had decided to remove the triple flip from her short program for Nagano and replace it with the simpler triple toe loop. It was a safe play, but it drew attention to the technical gap between Kwan and her younger rival. In Friday night's long program, Kwan, skating first among the final six women, was careful, sure, and technically without error. She was also a little slow but landed all seven of her triple jumps cleanly, with only one minor wobble. "She was going for accuracy and consistency," Carroll said later. "Her performance was very held in. It was not the feeling of flying."
Still, a solid row of 5.9s for the presentation mark seemed to assure Kwan of the gold medal. That performance certainly would have been enough to win at any other Olympics. But the judges, who had properly saddled Kwan with five 5.7s for technical merit, had left a sliver of room, which was all Lipinski needed. This was not a gold medal Kwan lost so much as it was ripped away from her. Lipinski perfectly articulated her Olympic experience with her skates. She had a blast. She soared and spun with abandon, filling the White Ring with her joy. Like Kwan, she landed seven triples, but the difference was her trademark triple loop-triple loop combination and a wonderful closing triple toe-half loop-triple Salchow sequence. She finished her program with an illusion spin. Then she broke into a spontaneous, exultant sprint across the ice with arms raised that someone later remarked bore a warming resemblance to a girl running into her father's long-absent embrace.
Stepping off the ice, Lipinski, who only a year ago was referred to in print as a jumping robot, broke into uncontrollable sobs of relief. And then, as she recomposed herself, came her best Olympic memory of all: the moment her marks were flashed onto the board, and she saw the six (of nine) first-place marks. Three, four, five times Lipinski shrieked in unfettered disbelief, a piercing high-pitched cry that friends sitting 30 rows up could hear. The next day, while watching the tape of that moment in the CBS trailer, her mother referred to it as a "Publishers Clearing House scream." Tara, hair nicely curled, mouth agape, listened in embarrassment as her parents, her agent and various CBS technicians laughed at each succeeding squeal. The joy in that moment was infectious, and no one in that trailer wanted it to end.
Which is pretty much the way Lipinski felt about these Olympics. "I'm so happy but also a little sad that the Olympics are slipping away," she said in a moment of peace late in the day. The last reserves of adrenaline were flagging, and when she tried to cut her spaghetti, the knife flew out of her hand in a perfect double Axel, splattering her jacket with tomato sauce. "I'm so tired," she said, sighing. "I hate leaving. I'll miss the village and the cafeteria as much as the skating. I'll miss it, but I don't think I could do this again."
Sure, she could. But she won't have to if she doesn't want to. Like memories, gold lasts a lifetime. Even if you're only 15.